Africa's Deep Helium Pool

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Photo Credit: © AP Photo: Helium lifts weather balloons high into the atmosphere to record and transmit local weather information.

Raise a toast—and a helium-filled balloon—to researchers from Durham and Oxford universities in the United Kingdom! Working with Norwegian mining company Helium One, the researchers discovered a huge helium reserve in Tanzania's portion of eastern Africa's Great Rift Valley. Helium is an important gas, but supplies are limited, so the discovery is welcome news. The research team presented their findings last week at the Goldschmidt Geochemical Conference in Yokohama, Japan.

Helium is a lightweight gas and chemical element. Hydrogen is the only element that weighs less than helium. Helium is called an inert gas or noble gas. These terms are used because helium does not combine with other elements.

Helium is the second most common element in the universe, next to hydrogen, but it is rare on Earth. Scientists think that early in the formation of the solar system, Earth and the other three inner planets (Mercury, Venus, and Mars) had atmospheres of hydrogen and helium. But the constant outflow of particles from the sun, called the solar wind, blew away most of these elements. Only larger planets orbiting farther from the sun, such as Jupiter and Saturn, were able to hold on to their hydrogen and helium atmospheres.

The research group thinks that volcanic activity at rift sites, such as the Great Rift Valley, provides the heat necessary to release helium from ancient rocks where it had been trapped for billions of years. They suspect that geologists will find more reserves in similar locations. Until this discovery, most of the major supplies of helium were found in natural gas deposits in the United States, but these reserves have been running dangerously low.

The newly discovered helium pool contains an estimated 54 billion cubic feet (1.5 billion cubic meters) of the gas—and the researchers think they have only scratched the surface of the rift valley's helium potential. Annual global helium consumption is about 8 billion cubic feet (227 million cubic meters), so the African reserve will provide nearly seven years' use of the gas.

In helium arc welding, sometimes called heliarc welding, helium prevents oxygen from reacting with the metal.
Credit: © Thinkstock

Why is the helium discovery important to us? Couldn’t we survive without party balloons? Helium has many other important uses. It fills another kind of balloon—the weather balloon—that helps meteorologists study and predict the weather. Welders use helium to shield welded joints from oxygen in the air. If a welded joint absorbs oxygen, it becomes weak or brittle. Liquid helium is used as a coolant for rocket engines and for the large magnets in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices. Such machines help doctors look inside the human body to diagnose diseases. In fact, helium's scarcity led some medical professionals to question whether the gas should be used for such frivolous purposes as filling party balloons. But, thanks to the researchers and Helium One, you can fill your next balloon with a clear conscience

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